PITTSBURGH — It began as an idea, a hopeful notion that might one day become something more.
Marcus Weathers and his brother, Michael, had grown up playing basketball together, but following their freshman season at Miami (Ohio), their coach was fired, and life and basketball took them elsewhere. Michael went to Oklahoma State and later Texas Southern while Marcus landed at Duquesne, where he was the team's leading scorer the past two seasons.
As the 2020-21 season wore on, they talked with each other every so often about reuniting and using their final season of college eligibility to once again play together. Those conversations translated into action. Both opted to transfer from their respective schools and in April. They committed to SMU, where they'll play next season.
"It's been a super long time and a super long journey, but I know me and him prayed on it," Marcus said. "We've got guys showing us the way and showing us the right path to take. This is going to be the best season I've ever had in college basketball and I think it's going to be the funnest season I've ever had in college basketball."
While their circumstances are unique, the Weathers brothers' decision to transfer is not.
A trying and unconventional college basketball season has been followed by a frenzied offseason, with players changing rosters at a rate previously unseen in the sport. As of Tuesday morning, 1,544 Division I men's college basketball players had entered the transfer portal, according to VerbalCommits.com. With 13 scholarship players each on 357 rosters, that number accounts for 33.3% of the sport. In women's college basketball, more than 1,000 players have entered the portal. That increased movement has come in the same offseason in which the NCAA Division I Council approved legislation allowing athletes to transfer one time without having to sit out one year.
A sport that has long been defined to some extent by transience has suddenly become that much more prone to turnover. To those in and around college basketball, questions have emerged about where the game is and where it may go in the years to come.
"It's like 'Trading Places,'" said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a former head coach at Virginia Tech and South Florida. "It's part of the culture of the sport right now."
A new reality
It's not just the sheer size of the portal that's notable. It's how quickly it got there.
The 1,544 transferring players — a figure that will continue to rise — is up from 1,024 players last season, an increase of 50.8%. That number was at 800 five years ago and 577 in 2012, according to VerbalCommits data. The three Division I schools in the Pittsburgh area have had a combined 20 players leave, led by Robert Morris with eight. Last year, that trio lost 12 players.
A slew of reasons, some more relevant than others, helps explain the spike.
The passage of the one-time transfer exemption has shaped the current landscape, removing the daunting deterrent of having to sit out of competition for a full year. It's a move that some, like Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot, believe was long overdue. This being the first offseason in which such a workaround existed has created a rush that likely wouldn't have happened in a normal year.
Exacerbating that is an NCAA ruling that gave all players an extra season of eligibility, including seniors whose careers would have otherwise been over unless they opted to become a graduate transfer. Of the 1,544 players in the portal, 416 of them are seniors or redshirt seniors, about 27% of all transferring players.
There was the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the uncertainty a once-in-a-generation event created, to say nothing of how it deprived students and athletes of the joy of a traditional college experience.
Beyond that, the rationales for transfers are highly individualized. For some, it's more playing time at a lower level. Of the 226 transfers from a major-conference school who have committed somewhere, 138 (61.1%) ended up at a school outside those six leagues. For others, it's heightened competition and greater opportunities for exposure available at a bigger program. The feeling of being recruited again can be intoxicating, particularly for small-conference players who weren't wooed in the same way coming out of high school.
Sometimes, a coaching change necessitates a move. In other instances, rifts can develop.
"Here at Oakland, I feel like I wasn't able to show my versatility as a player," said Daniel Oladapo, a transfer from Oakland University who signed with Pitt in April. "I kind of felt like coach was just holding me back. ... I was just telling him to get to where I want to get to, I need to show more of my game. We really didn't see eye to eye."
In that way, the portal can provide a valuable, much-needed reset.
"It gave me an opportunity to reassess what I really needed at this point in my career," said Au'Diese Toney, who transferred from Pitt in February and eventually signed with Arkansas. "I wish I could have taken an official visit, but at this point in my career, the only thing I really care about is winning."
Then there are more unusual cases.
"There are kids that are probably perfectly happy in their situation, but someone is saying they're so-and-so's guy and they're being shopped around," Greenberg said. "A guy will come up and say, 'Hypothetically, if so-and-so left School X, would you be interested?' I got two calls from guys that said they got that exact phone call and the player didn't even know he was being shopped around by someone who said he's his guy. It's going to be unsettling."
It's all reflective of a new reality in the sport.
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole can empathize with exiting players. He, too, transferred, leaving Elon in 1999 for Penn, where he helped lead the Quakers to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. At the time, Toole remembered feeling as if there was something wrong with him for making such a move. In the two decades since, it's a mindset that has evolved dramatically.
"You'll see guys that are successful players who play a lot of minutes on their team and they'll say to you, 'I just want to see what's out there,'" Toole said. "You'll hear guys say, 'Well, I didn't really get recruited that hard the first time. I want to get recruited.' Some of the stuff doesn't necessarily add up versus, 'Hey, I'm in a good situation where I'm a big part of a team. There's a plan in place for me. I have an opportunity to continue to grow and develop.' Sometimes, that's not even enough."
What the transfer portal and the one-time transfer exemption offer for players on a micro level has larger, potentially lasting ramifications.
Perhaps the most apparent and immediate development comes with high school recruits, who some in grassroots basketball believe are being overlooked as college coaches devote time and resources to pursuing transfers.
"There are kids who are solid scholarship basketball players who don't have offers right now and who would regularly have multiple offers," said Rob Kennedy, the president of the Hoop Group, a New Jersey-based basketball company that runs camps, clinics, tournaments and leagues. "You can see the impact right away through that. There are kids who should be getting recruited who are not."
College coaches have noticed, too, with Toole noting that he and his assistants hear regularly from high school and junior college coaches imploring them to take a look at one of their players. But the portal, a perpetually updating list of available players, is often too enticing.
From their end, it makes sense. Much of the guesswork involved in recruiting a high school player doesn't exist with a transfer, who has already shown what they can do against Division I opponents. That inherent advantage has been compounded by the pandemic, which forbade coaches from being able to scout high school recruits in person, relegating them to game tapes and livestreams of AAU tournaments.
"There's no reason to invest years into trying to develop a high school player if you can take a kid that has proven himself on the college level and averaged 18.3 points per game in the Summit League," said Rob Cassidy, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com. "You may have some questions about whether he can play in a major conference, but at least it has been established that this kid has been acclimated to the speed of the college game and he can stand toe-to-toe with college players."
Building a recruiting strategy around transfers isn't just less presumptive. It's also quite effective.
Of the 20 starters in this year's Final Four, nine began their college careers elsewhere, including three on national champion Baylor. This season, Arkansas made its first Elite Eight in 26 years with five transfers among its top eight scorers and has three more transfers arriving next season. It's a viable path for coaches in pressurized positions that demand rapid results.
"The years of developing four-year guys are gone," Dambrot said. "I think it's now a two-year, junior-college, AAU-type of approach, where you develop them, you play them and then you don't count on having anybody for four years anymore."
There's a belief that more than just high schoolers will be negatively affected. The one-time transfer rule doesn't apply to players who have already transferred in their career, meaning some in the portal will have to hope for a favorable NCAA waiver ruling. Some coaches worry about whether all academic credits will transfer from one school to another and how that may impact graduation rates. With only so many spots available on teams, some players will inevitably have few, if any, Division I options if they don't commit quickly enough, turning their life and career into a game of musical chairs in which they're left with nowhere to go.
While no program is immune to defections, there's some fear that schools from outside the major conferences will serve as a farm system of sorts, even more than they have previously.
In the past four seasons, Duquesne and Robert Morris have lost four players who led the team in scoring in a given season, all of whom transferred to programs in bigger, more prominent leagues. The standout with remaining eligibility at a mid-major who guides his or her program on an NCAA Tournament run now has options previously unavailable, as does the player working their way up the rotation in a program that gets old and stays old, much like Pitt did in its most decorated years.
"It causes people to quit prematurely and not fight through adversity, which is teaching our young people to give up maybe sometimes before they should," Dambrot said. "I think that's one part I don't like. I sound like an old man with that, but we've all hit that point where we all wanted to quit, whether it's your job, whether it's your marriage, whether it's with a friend, anything."
But for as much as coaches complain about the portal, and for all it can do to complicate their jobs, they still scour it.
'Everybody should have a new start'
The question now facing college basketball is whether the exceptionally high volume of transfers this year is an outlier or a sign of what's to come.
The confluence of new rules and a global pandemic has perhaps artificially inflated the number of transfers. Players who were waiting on utilizing their one free transfer have now exhausted it, and seniors will no longer be afforded the extra year of eligibility they were granted. Those left without appealing suitors (or a suitor altogether) could serve as cautionary tales.
Still, transfer figures had been climbing for years, nearly doubling from 2012 to 2020. While this year may be an irregularity, it embodies a larger trend.
"Like with everything, when they initially enact something, the pendulum will swing severely in one direction and it will kind of find its middle point," Toole said. "But I do think this is the new normal."
Within college basketball, views on transferring vary wildly based on one's perspective and standing, making the portal more of a Rorschach Test than an online database of available transfers.
To some coaches, it's antithetical to the messages of commitment and perseverance they preach, with new legislation circumventing old rules they thought were in place for good reasons.
"Is this what we want recruiting to be nowadays? Not actually developing relationships, but continuing to put the portal on your computer screen every day and see who pops up and sign free agents constantly?" said Robert Morris women's basketball coach Charlie Buscaglia, who added that he believes many players transfer for a number of valid reasons. "We're allowed to do that as much as the players are allowed to leave, but is that a culture of what college athletics should be about? Are we teaching about quickly moving on and playing immediately and coaches picking people up quickly? It's a terrible message. I don't feel it's good for the game."
For unpaid amateur athletes, though, it's a small measure of power and freedom they didn't previously possess.
They can now do what their coaches have been able to for decades — leave one school for another and be able to immediately compete. Stars trading one program for another can harm their former home, but it also puts the player in a position in which they believe they're better equipped to excel. The only two active NBA players from the Pittsburgh area, T.J. McConnell of the Indiana Pacers and Cameron Johnson of the Phoenix Suns, both transferred in college, moves that ultimately allowed them to reach the league and fulfill their dreams.
"I'm hoping these kids are starting to get some power," said Cassidy, the Rivals recruiting director. "It's really easy for everybody to complain that this is ruining the sport or whatever, but they're not the ones in those shoes. They're not the ones trying to get to the next level. They're not the ones whose life depends on this, who poured their whole life into playing basketball for a shot at the pros or a shot to play college basketball at a high level."
While new rules and developments are beneficial for players, are they good for the game?
College basketball has long been a bit of a niche sport, something that is generally overlooked, if not outright ignored, for much of the regular season before captivating the nation for a glorious month. The parade of top NBA prospects spending one season in college before heading to the NBA didn't significantly diminish interest in the sport, but that only involves two dozen or so standouts in a sport with about 4,600 scholarship players at the Division I level. While fans ultimately still cheer for laundry, would more than 1,000 transfers a year and annually reshuffled rosters make it more difficult for casual observers to follow?
"When you don't know who's on your team — we talked about it with one-and-dones — you don't get an attachment to players in your program," Greenberg said. "This will make it that much harder."
As far-reaching and existential as some of the questions surrounding transfers are, though, the decisions behind each of the more than 1,500 names in the portal are often deeply personal.
"I believe that everyone should do what's best for them," Toney said. "Coaches, players, sometimes things don't work out the way they're supposed to for whatever reason. I just see it as a new start. Everybody should have a new start."